Man and Beuys

Interview: Keith Hennessy. Hennessy muses about involving the audience instead of alienating them, the similarities between Justin Bieber and corn syrup and what ‘queer’ means today.

Image for Man and Beuys
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Keith Hennessy doesn’t believe performance art should be inaccessible. Case in point: in his latest Bessie award-winning piece Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma…), the San Francisco-based choreographer and dancer kindly gives a lecture on how Beuys fits into the scheme of German philosophy and art history, via Wagner, the Romantics and Judith Butler: a helping hand in case you’re puzzled by the lemons with lamp lights plugged into them or the suspended stuffed bear being whipped. As he prepares to bring Crotch to Berlin for the first time, Hennessy spoke to us about involving the audience instead of alienating them, the similarities between Justin Bieber and corn syrup and what ‘queer’ means today.

You often pick a political issue as a starting point for developing a show, but that wasn’t the case with Crotch: you picked Joseph Beuys.

In one way I picked Joseph Beuys, and in another way I was picking how to avoid my personal life. There are kind of two pieces at once happening with Crotch. One is very specifically about Joseph Beuys. All the images reference his work, or cite it somehow, or take pieces of his and turn them in another direction. Then there’s an undercurrent to the work, which I don’t address except at the very beginning, in a sort of badly-written poem: that is that the piece comes after what I call my gay divorce, a break-up of a long term relationship, that I didn’t want to address specifically.

You say in Crotch, “I feel like at this point in contemporary dance, it’s either a wig or a mask.” It comes across as funny; but are you also making a serious point about where contemporary dance is today?

One of the main things happening in contemporary dance is people trying to approach dance from the critiques levied in the 1960s and 1970s against virtuosity and representation. One of the easy strategies is towards a kind of burlesque, or comedy, or even a camp distance. So there’s a lot of wearing of wigs and/or masks. It becomes a kind of way to make jokes that help the non-dance audience feel like: “Okay, we’re still in on it. He hasn’t left us, just because the extra movements are unreadable to us.”

You’ve been called a pioneer of queer dance. What is queer dance for you?

I think ‘queer’ in English-speaking places means something very different than what it’s starting to mean in continental Europe, where they don’t have any of the taboos or negative associations with the history of the word. If anything it’s a quaint word which means ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ and therefore it becomes an academic tactic or a sexual tactic, about being not mainstream. But I think for Americans or British people, the word has an extra weight to it, because it’s basically an insult.

You’re working increasingly in Germany and France – you developed Crotch at Ponderosa in Stolzenhagen. Why the shift across the Atlantic?

Because it’s where the money and the interest is. There’s almost no money for solo performance in the US in general, and most of the projects I’m doing are interdisciplinary and don’t fit into the discipline-based funding in the US.

There’s always a tendency – among audiences, critics, everyone – to want to explain pieces, to find symbolism and meaning. Do you resent that or exploit it? Do you enjoy ambiguity?

All my work contains some kind of pedagogical project as part of it, a teaching of the audience about how to see the work and how to participate in art in general. I think that’s only fair in a way. The pressure of mainstream media and dominant culture is so great that experimental art should not necessarily explain itself, but help people to enter it. And even help them to ask other questions besides ‘What does it mean?’ I’m not that invested in meaning. I try to help out – I literally try to help my audience and have a conversation.

On your blog you describe Justin Bieber as “heteronormative corn syrup”. Not your particular cup of corn syrup?

For me, corn syrup’s a bastardisation of what food should be. It’s so sweet it makes you sick; it’s just not how we should sweeten our food. (And I’m a big fan of dessert, don’t get me wrong.) There’s something sickly sweet about the way he performs social norms or the way he participates in such a hegemonic project built around his straightness and his whiteness. It’s kind of shocking actually, because he’s a child, a virgin, and yet every song is ‘Baby, baby, I love you – don’t ever leave me.’

On Eminem, you write: “I got a soft spot for this angry sensitive fucked up lower class boy-man. I do. I think it could work out between us. I’d calm his fist and still give him space to rage. And he knows it.”

He’s someone who it was easy for politically correct gays to hate because he’s so transparent in his rage, he directed so much of it against women, and he is so fluent in a kind of derogatory bitch talk. I think Eminem understands how fucked up society is about homophobia, and how much they let it run them, and I think he enjoys making fun of it. I don’t write Eminem off; he’s too interesting as an artist.

Beuys spent three days in a room with a live coyote for his piece I like America and America likes me. Any chance of you curling up with a Berlin bear?

That would be kind of brilliant. I hadn’t planned it! Probably not – I’d either work with a dead bear or a stuffed bear. [In Crotch] I have a rabbit reference because of the relationship to dead rabbits in Beuys’ work; I tend to work a lot with plushy animals in place of real ones. Maybe next time. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done.